This weekend, I rectified a long held and disappointing incongruity in my life: I went to see Die Hard in a movie theater. “Have you not seen Die Hard before?” you may be asking. Oh, no. I’ve seen Die Hard many times. Many, many times. There was a period in my early 30s during which my DVD copy sat mostly untouched on the shelf because I would simply watch Die Hard every single time a cable broadcast of the 1988 action classic coincided with my being conscious — which, to my great satisfaction, was weekly, at least. When people ask me, as a fan or a filmmaker, the name of my favorite motion picture, I cop to Die Hard — not Citizen Kane, not 8 ½, not even Pulp Fiction — with increasingly less embarrassment. (I do tend to couch it alongside Broadcast News to make me feel smarter, or When Harry Met Sally to make me appear more, yunno, human.)
I’m not a fanatic or anything. In fact, I’ve since calmed down. Nowadays, I can safely say I only watch Die Hard, starring Bruce Willis, directed by John McTiernan like, two or three times a year. The holiday season, of course, is hardly the time to practice such restraint, as Die Hard, in addition to being virtually the template for all modern action films, is also one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made. The good people running the Nitehawk Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn understand that. They weren’t showing an original 35mm print or anything fancy like that, but the projection was big and beautiful and boisterous just as Die Hard was originally intended to be. Seeing it at that size reiterated all the reasons why I never tire of this movie: It’s precisely plotted, expertly acted, taut, funny, romantic, and surprisingly relatable.
And, yes, Die Hard also evokes a very powerful nostalgia in people. On the surface, it brings you back to tape decks, and Run DMC, and shoulder pads for both sexes — an era when New York and Los Angeles seemed like disparate kingdoms at opposite ends of the universe. It blissfully recalls a time when you could presumably carry a gun on an airplane and smoke cigarettes in the terminal — two things I don’t even want to do.
I went to the showing with someone who had never seen Die Hard before. Wait, what? Yes! My tech-savvy companion, before tweeting about the movie from inside the theater, astutely pointed out that, in today’s world, a man like Joseph “Joe” Yoshinobu Takagi, the head of the gigantic, multinational corporation targeted by crooks, wouldn’t be able to remain hidden among the employees at his own company’s Christmas party. His picture would’ve been all over the internet.
The kind of ‘80s nostalgia this movie elicits is particularly bittersweet in our times. In Die Hard, the cops are merely incompetent, not murderous. The press are jerks, sure, but jerks with mugs you can punch, not the faceless mob trolling the internet for low hanging fruit. The criminals are clear-cut: post-Cold War bank robbers using the weaponry of terror who can be easily spotted by their foreign cigarettes and Fabio hairstyles, not religious extremists and ideologues concealed among the innocent citizenry of already-misunderstood nations. In Die Hard, destroying a building means the damage is still confined to a few empty floors and a couple of bad guys who really deserved it.
The irony of harboring nostalgia for Die Hard is that the movie itself is already about nostalgia — nostalgia for a time long before the big hair '80s during which it was made. The hero, John McClane of the New York City Police Department, is traditional to a fault. He wants to hear Christmas carols, not some claptrap coming out of Hollis, Queens. He lives a miserable existence three thousand miles away from his family in Los Angeles because he could not accept the fact that his wife had worked her way to a successful, financially lucrative career and would not be staying home chasing after little Lucy and John Jr. Not only is McClane mired in outdated gender politics, he also suffers from an unrealistic perception of job satisfaction. It’s not enough to be a cop; he wants to be a cowboy in a world where the good guys are good and the bad guys are just not. It’s a secret desire which delights his savvier, more worldly nemesis Hans Gruber — played with spectacular evil joy by Alan Rickman — to nearly no end. It’s a notion that also strikes us as quaint if not utterly naive.
Nostalgia is broadly defined as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past.” But you hardly ever hear anyone longing for a time when things were way more complicated. Die Hard sparks our yearning for a simpler time. The movie itself is a brilliant exercise in simplicity. When was the last time you saw a blockbuster action film confined to essentially one location — and not because the budget so dictated? The characters are fully fleshed out, but they act on fairly simple imperatives: crack this safe, save my wife, purchase these Twinkies. And, in the end, after a Japanese CEO gets his brains splattered against a glass door, a half-dozen Eastern European hunks and countless police officers die in a hail of ammunition, one idea emerges from the rubble: Love conquers all. Broadcast News can’t say that.
John McClane persists miraculously through an absurd onslaught of impossible circumstances, not to prevent a theft, not to be a hero, but just to see his wife safe. Love friggin’ conquers all. It sounds ridiculous to say it. But, somehow, it’s acceptable to believe it — at least for 130 minutes, amidst blood and bullets and C4 detonating everywhere. It’s acceptable to echo it, as long as it comes out of your mouth as, “Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker!” Hell, why not see Die Hard on a big screen during the holidays with a group of eager devotees who recite each line to themselves and to the screen like nervous prayers? That is motion picture Mecca right there. In those moments, Die Hard is not just a good movie, it’s an invocation.